SXSWORLD November 2014


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1 8 S X S W o r l d | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 4 | S X S W. C O M The things that really change the world… are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and sub- sequently a storm ravages half of Europe." Neil Gaiman, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch -- Jon Hoekstra sees magic in the little things. When he was growing up in Michigan, he saw it in the smallest of small scales: the transfor- mation of a caterpillar into a chrysalis and then a monarch butterfly. Today, he sees it in the power of individuals – whether a villager in Sumatra, a suburban kid in Nebraska, Kansas or Texas, or an indigenous community member in the Amazon – to make their voices heard in ways that change the course of science, policy and the planet's overall health. Hoekstra is the chief sci- entist at the World Wildlife Fund (W WF), and the leader of its conserva- tion science program. In September, W WF reported that between 1970 and 2010, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians fell by 52 percent – far faster than previously thought. Hoekstra's team of 30 scientists and professionals work with hundreds of scientists globally to support conservation programs aimed at reversing that decline. For all the dismal news, Hoekstra sees technology – and its ability to empower citizen scientists – as a potential bright spot in conser- vation efforts. He views technology's ecological promise as twofold. On the one hand is what he calls a new set of "superpowers," namely the ability to capture, aggregate and cross-reference a range of previ- ously siloed data inputs – satellite images, images from camera traps (which take photos of wildlife based on heat- and motion-activated sensors), GPS tracking, weather mapping and more – into data sets that can be analyzed to reveal longitudinal trends in unprecedented ways. On the other hand is technology's ability to empower people on the ground, such as Sumatran villagers, Amazonian community members or American kids, to use simple devices and apps to capture and document what they see every day, and to contribute that infor- mation to those same super-powered data sets that are fed by more doctrinaire scientific methods. "The abilities that new tools put into individual hands are incred- ibly exciting," Hoekstra says. "Conceivably, millions and even billions of people can contribute observa- tions. Then we can combine big picture views and fine scale observation, and put it together as 'big data' that can be used to change what we do on the ground." Global-scale ecological change and the limits of traditional research methods As a marketing meme, "big data" has been overplayed, but its value to science – in particular, to ecology and conservation – is real. As the authors of a 2013 paper in a peer- reviewed journal, Frontiers in Ecolog y and the Environment, note, "global-scale environmental issues, from climate change and food security to the spread of disease and the availability of clean water, are creating pressure for ecologists" to move beyond a traditional research model toward a new model that routinely shares data as a public resource. This move, the authors argue, is one that ecologists, who often view raw research data as proprietary and as a precursor to publication rather than as a resource in and of itself, may resist. Can Big Data Help Save Monarch Butterflies? by Ashley CrAddoCk " I N G O A R N D T K E V I N S C H A F E R

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